Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Poetry and Ingenuity: Tyehimba Jess and #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

Tyehimba Jess as Brooklyn Poets' Poet of the Week,  January 5–11, 2015
For several months now, I've been wondering whether we give enough attention to creativity (ingenuity, usefulness, problem-finding, innovation, etc.) in discussions of literary art and even poetry. I don't think we do, not in direct ways. More on all of that later.

Whatever the case, ideas about creativity were circulating in my head when I encountered Tyehimba Jess's contribution to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. His poem "Against Silence" was basically demanding that we -- those of us trying to write about poetry and literary art -- do more to recognize and write about fierce resourcefulness when we see it in poetry.

Off the top, one reason that Jess's poem caught my attention was because it purposefully and artistically links to various other familiar discourses. He incorporates police brutality discourse; he references conversations about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; he mentions  images we might see at a protest rally and funeral; he name-checks more than a dozen men and women killed by police; he even signifies on the discourse of killer drones. In short, Jess's poem stands out in part because of how much information that it blends in.

A decade ago, Jess made a name for himself by mining the historical record. His book Leadbelly (2005) remains one of our most outstanding contemporary works to creatively and poetically re-present history from first-person perspectives by tracing the life and experiences of the legendary folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. Few individual volumes of poetry sought to give us the voices of so many different characters associated with a key black historical figure.    

So Jess's attentiveness to multiple voices displayed in Leadbelly is present here in "Against Silence." He conceivably asks us to imagine different voices and hence subjects throughout the poem. "My name is Eric. My name is Bell. My name is Eleanor," he writes referencing Eric Garner , who was killed in 2014, Sean Bell who was killed in 2006, and Eleanor Bumpurs who was killed in 1984. The inclination to take on multiple personas has a long history in black poetry, and Jess adapts and extends the practice by briefly assuming the first-person perspectives of various contemporary figures who were the victims of police violence. 

Jess's creativity does not stop with artistic remembrance. He also reworks even the terms of presenting the poem. Most participants in #BlackPoetsSpeakOut open by stating their name, noting that they are black poets, and saying "I have a right to be angry." Jess apparently absorbed those statements, and decides to make the statement a part of his poem, remixed to fit his purpose. In the opening, he goes, "My name is Tyehimba Jess. I am a black poet. I have a silence to be rightened." 

His use of "rightened" signals "rights," but he also plays on the  #BlackPoetsSpeakOut statement "I have a right to be angry." Jess references "right" and "angry" throughout his poem in fact, signaling back to the setup of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut within the body of his poem.   

In one notable way, Jess moves beyond the conventional discourse on African Americans who were killed by police. He references "Mashooq Jan" and "Mohammad Yaas Khann" who are not recognizable in discussions of police brutality. Instead, you are likely to encounter those names on sites like Global Drones Watch in the section "List of children killed by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen." By referencing drone strikes, Jess takes on the unusual task of placing a poem presumably about police violence into a broader, international context of violence against civilians.

Jess, thus, transforms himself from a black poet speaking out against police brutality into a black poet also speaking out against drone warfare.  Merging multiple, seemingly disparate discourses  is yet another mark of Jess's ingenuity.  

By the time I came across Jess's poem, I had already read or listened to more than 150 contributions to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Noticing how Jess relied on and diverged from the many other poems in #BlackPoetsSpeakOut allowed me to further understand and value his creativity as well as the overall value and various contributions of the project. 

Like Tony Medina, Jess has previously highlighted the excessive force enacted by police officers. Over 10 years ago, Jess produced a poem "When the Police Stop You," which reads as a list of instructions to African Americans stopped by the police. When the police stop you, Jess instructs, you should:
pull over immediately
pull yourself together
pull together your alibi for being brown
pull in your breath
pull in your prayers
don't pull out nothin
And later, he advises:

assume the worst
assume the position
assume you are guilty
assume the arrest will happen
assume interrogation
assume you are nothing but a package of meat

The poem is satirical, biting, and unfortunately, all too prophetic.  

"Against Silence" will not draw the kind of laughter that "When the Police Stop You" does; nonetheless, Jess's new poem displays his adept approaches to playing around, in a serious way no doubt, with language. 

A Notebook on Tyehimba Jess
A Notebook on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut

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